You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

For decades now, humanities scholars and advocates have been talking about the “crisis” in their disciplines. If the symptoms are arguably lower enrollments, funding cuts and slashed tenure-track lines, then diagnosing the root ailment has become a kind of Rorschach test for observers, with proponents of a great books-style approach often attributing the so-called decline of the humanities to the rise of critical theory. Supporters of theory, meanwhile, say critical approaches have revitalized the liberal arts for identity-hungry students, and that the humanities are battling a larger cultural devaluation of the field.

A new book from Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at the Pennsylvania State University, and Jennifer Ruth, associate professor of English at Portland State University, is more sympathetic to the latter argument but largely turns the crisis debate on its head. The crisis in the humanities is not critical theory or lack thereof, and it’s not even numbers of majors, which fell several decades ago but have remained relatively steady since, the book says. (Citing a report by statistician Nate Silver, among other data, Bérubé and Ruth argue that the relative decline of English majors, for example, is modest considering many more students than ever before attend college; that is, numbers of English majors as a share of all majors have fallen in recent years, but English majors as a percentage of all college students has been relatively constant. In 2011, for example, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-old graduates majored in English, versus 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991.)

Instead, Bérubé and Ruth assert in The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave Macmillan), the real crisis in the humanities is the large-scale employment of non-tenure-track professors with no academic freedom who are hired, rehired and fired relatively informally and noncompetitively. Bérubé and Ruth also propose a solution to the “deprofessionalization” of the professoriate: a teaching-intensive tenure track that would grandfather long-serving adjuncts but for everyone else prioritize the competitive hiring of those with terminal degrees.

“We propose that many full-time faculty lines off the tenure track be converted to teaching-intensive tenured positions,” the book says. “The tenure process for such faculty would involve rigorous peer review, conducted by their tenured colleagues at the same institution, but would carry no expectations for research or creative activity,” although service would still be required. Another, more traditional tenure track would remain for professors with research responsibilities.

The controversial part, the book continues, “is that not everyone now teaching as contingent, adjunct faculty would be equally eligible for conversion to the teaching-intensive tenure track.… Getting college faculty back on the tenure track, we believe, involves eliminating as much random, ad hoc hiring as possible, thereby diminishing the amount of faculty hiring that works as a patronage system and increasing the amount of faculty hiring that abides by nationally recognized standards of professionalism.”

Moreover, the authors say, “our proposal would give priority back to faculty who have completed the doctorate, on the grounds that (a) the doctorate is the appropriate credential for tenured faculty (except in fields where the [master of fine arts] is the terminal degree)… and (b) we are currently producing cohort after cohort of new Ph.D.s who are dumped into a system staffed by faculty who do not have Ph.D.s that is the structural cause of the crisis in graduate education.”

In an interview, Ruth said she was inspired to contact Bérubé, who is active within the national American Association of University Professors, following the publication of a 2013 AAUP report recommending more participation in shared governance for non-tenure-track faculty members. While Ruth wholeheartedly supported more say for non-tenure-track faculty in university affairs, she said, her own experiences in institutional decision making as department chair led her to believe that shared governance wasn’t possible without the academic freedom and job security that comes with tenure. Rolling contracts, even longer-term ones, just aren’t enough, she said, noting a non-tenure-track colleague once told her she couldn’t get involved in a curricular argument with the administration because her three-year contract was soon up.

The “vulnerability” experienced by colleagues off the tenure track “really undermines the culture in a department,” despite even tenure-line colleagues’ best intentions, Ruth said.

Bérubé said he didn’t entirely realize the impact of non-tenure-track faculty employment on one’s ability to participate fully in shared governance until talking to Ruth (Note: This sentence has been updated from an earlier version, which erroneously suggested Bérubé helped draft the AAUP report). The two began corresponding about the problem and settled on a possible solution: a blueprint for a teaching-intensive tenure track that Ruth has proposed (but that hasn’t been adopted) at Portland State.

It looks something like this: full-time, non-tenure-track instructors hired through competitive regional or national searches become eligible for tenure in three years. If they don’t get tenure though a competitive peer review, they’re “up and out.” Senior instructors who were “fast-tracked” or hired outside of a competitive search process will lose their jobs, but may reapply for the same positions through a competitive search, with one major exception: those hired eight or more years ago may keep their positions or transition to tenure-track positions to become eligible for tenure within three years.

Key to the plan is that the university does not reduce the number of full-time faculty it employs as part of the process, and that the university expands academic freedom and shared governance for these new faculty members.

The book is not prescriptive regarding quotas for part-timers versus full-timers, but is based on the premise that part-time adjuncts should be employed as they traditionally were: sparingly, and mostly due to their professional expertise in other fields. A post-tenure review process is also recommended.

Both Ruth and Bérubé said they acknowledged the inevitable pain that would come with such a change for adjuncts serving fewer than eight years at an institution, particularly those without terminal degrees. But they both said they believed that a Ph.D. or M.F.A. should be the qualification for teaching at a college or university, or else the terminal degree doesn’t mean much at all.

Ruth put it like this: “Not only have we done such a disservice to generations of students whom we’ve told they have to get a Ph.D. to teach at the college level… but the Ph.D. does matter. There’s the [all-but-dissertation] attitude, ‘I’ve done everything but that,’ but the dissertation is no little thing. It’s the place where you synthesize and articulate everything you’ve learned.”

Bérubé said there was no way to please everyone in any one solution to the academic labor crisis, which is particularly acute in the humanities. But other solutions seems to be “palliating” rather than solving the problem, he said.

Underpinning this plan to save the humanities is a discussion of why the humanities matter. To Bérubé and Ruth, interpretive theory is of a certain value to students, in that race, gender, sexuality and disability, for example, are made more exciting by the idea that they are not fixed concepts. (Although the authors acknowledge that the “culture of theory -- with its superstars and shibboleths and sacred cows” could be “and indeed often was, obnoxious.”) But more importantly, they argue, the process of debating the “history of universalist aspirations and challenges thereto” is a “path to a form of wisdom” and a “deeper understanding of human affairs.”

Put another way, the book says, one should see the humanities “as the study of what it means and has meant and might yet mean to be human, in a world where ‘the human’ itself is a variable term, its definition challenged and revised time and time again. We should say that what we offer is not the prospect of a better life but the (ancient, and ever-changing) promise of an examined life: and just as the universal has not yet received a final articulation, we might say that the study of the humanities has no final examination.”

Bérubé and Ruth throughout the book say they’ve been inspired by the work of Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Emory University who’s written extensively about the professional credentialing problem in higher education, or the mass, off-tenure-track hiring of instructors without terminal degrees.

Bousquet said via email that he was aware of Bérubé’s and Ruth’s proposal, and that it didn’t strike him as particularly novel.

The teaching-intensive tenure track already exists,” he said. “It has existed since tenure was invented. By definition: anyone teaching 3/2 or more and on track is in a teaching-intensive tenure stream appointment. That's still most of the faculty. The idea that only or primarily research faculty teaching 2/2 or less deserve tenure is a recent development, which took root in faculty folk culture largely as a way to legitimize the allocation of a scarce resource (tenured lines). It is just marketing to call it a ‘new’ model for tenure.”

Referencing an AAUP report on tenure and teaching-intensive appointments he co-wrote in 2010, Bousquet said the difference between the new proposal and AAUP policy is “on the point of conversion: Should long-serving faculty be converted to teaching-intensive tenure track appointment -- or just their positions? AAUP and most faculty serving contingently say yes. Bérubé and Ruth seem to say no.”

Bousquet added: “I think this is a false dichotomy, largely because it was developed abstractly. In on-the-ground reality, the kind of conversion that Bérubé and Ruth suggest will happen slowly, if it happens at all, probably much more slowly than the actual turnover in faculty positions. There's no need for conversion to dislodge anyone.” Additionally, he said, “Younger faculty without the terminal degree can be offered the chance to complete one over a reasonable term of years.”

Among adjuncts themselves, the proposal is controversial, as the book predicts. But at least one adjunct activist says she likes aspects of the idea -- so long as tenure and a terminal degree aren't prerequisites for the academic freedom and due process protections that current non-tenure-track faculty need immediately, regardless of how they were hired or their degree status. Tiffany Kraft, a Ph.D. holder, worked at Portland State when Ruth was the English chair and imposed some aspects of her plan on the department. Kraft said Ruth "ruffled some feathers" by prioritizing the most qualified non-tenure-track candidates, but both the size and quality of Kraft's course load increased greatly under Ruth, who "treated me like a colleague.” Unfortunately, she said, those gains weren't sustained after Ruth stepped down as chair.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, took a somewhat similar view. The proposal is on the "right track," she said, but "what is most important to us is that long-serving, part-time faculty who do not have doctorates not get thrown under the bus in the attempt, however well-intentioned, to fix a very broken system. That is, a Ph.D. should not be a prerequisite for academic freedom or due process since all faculty and their students need the protection of both."

Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California,  directs the campus's Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success and works with faculty and administrative groups to study how the rise of non-tenure-track employment affects student learning outcomes. She said Bérubé's and Ruth's teaching-intensive model aligns with some of her research, but that it seems to neglect the disfavor into which tenure has fallen in some circles. There's widespread antipathy toward lifetime appointments and an interest in maintaining faculty staffing flexibility due to fluctuations in enrollment, for example, she said, noting that a strong post-tenure review process could address some of the problem.

Still, Kezar said, the model "certainly addresses a major issue of the disconnect of the need for teaching-focused positions, but all tenured positions being based almost exclusively on excellence in research." It "opens up a meaningful area for discussion and a viable possible model to address some areas of concern," she added.

Next Story

More from Faculty Issues